HTML5 could at last force Apple to fall into line over online video standards

Only the most dominant market players can rule over whole ecosystems with their own proprietary standards, and in recent years Apple (opens in new tab) has been unique in doing so in the realm of online music. It has since sought to extend this hegemony across multimedia as a whole and reap the resulting commercial benefits through having a captive audience for its products and services, to some extent shutting rivals out.

But it is now looking like this strategy is beginning to unravel as online content distribution continues to evolve toward full broadcast quality. Another significant factor has been the inexorable advance of the Android platform driven by Google, which has eroded Apple’s early dominance in tablets and actually overtaken it in smartphones. But underlying that commercial factor is the emergence and maturation of open standards for online video and OTT services that are gaining almost universal support outside the Apple ecosystem. This includes a variety of standards such as DASH streaming and Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) that are coming together under the umbrella of HTML5, the latest version of the web markup language optimized for multimedia presentation. HTML5 is designed to allow playback of video without need for the plugins that were required inside Adobe’s Flash environment for example and also Apple’s iOS.

The combination of Android’s advance and ratification of key standards around Web delivery spearheaded by HTML5 will within a year or two force Apple into a significant strategy shift away from its proprietary ecosystem, according to Michael Dale, director of Player and Mobile Product at New York-based vendor of open-source online content distribution software producer Kaltura. Dale is not alone in this view, but puts it succinctly by pointing out that it is a simple function of market power. “Eventually Apple will have to adapt because there will be millions of HTML5 and JavaScript developers and only hundreds of thousands of iOS developers,” said Dale. The latter is still a large number, and Apple will continue to be one of the major targets for app and service development. But it will no longer be setting the pace, with that mantle passing to Android."

So, if Apple becomes a second-class experience because it cannot provide those experiences available under HTML5, it will force [Apple's] hand.”

Dale pointed out that Microsoft, which achieved almost total dominance of the PC market in the late 1990s when Apple was on its knees before the Steve Jobs-inspired revival on the back of the iPod, has long thrown in the towel itself over standards and fallen into line with open ones. “Microsoft has said all Windows apps will be HTML5-based,” Dale noted.

A key point in all this is that HTML5 is at last approaching fitness for purpose as a broadcast-quality standard. As Dale observed, HTML5 had already progressed far by coalescing around H.264 as its standard video codec, having started out by being all over the place in this regard. This enabled it to gain ground for certain on-demand or video distribution services that no longer had to deal with multiple codecs, but still failed to make much impression for broadcast- or studio-quality content delivery. This was because until recently two vital ingredients have been missing, support for adaptive streaming, especially the emerging universal MPEG DASH, and for encrypted content controls. The first of these omissions has been fixed by the arrival of EME and the second by the Media Stream API.

EME supports end-to-end encryption, allowing the client device to play back content if it has been granted the rights, by requesting a licensing key to decode the stream. It does not define a method of content protection or DRM but instead an API that can be used to discover, select and interact with these systems. This enables it to support a range of encryption mechanisms and DRMs down to the browser to suit services of varying types, enabling robust protection for high-value content as well as free services at the other end of the scale.

Then the Media Stream API enables live video broadcast support with robust adaptive streaming. With these developments we will see HTML5 taking over for playback over the next two years as it becomes capable of supporting premium video delivery. No vendor will be big enough to ignore it any longer.